Tag Archives: teaching

A blast from the past or back to the future?

Some time ago, my past caught up with me and it was both a pleasure and a shock.

In 1968, at the ripe young age of 22, I was a chemistry teacher to a group of Secondary IV students. Teaching was how I paid my university fees.

It turned out to be a very special group, mainly because these young people were interesting, curious, and antsy yet mature for their age. There was also a very special dynamic in the class that year because the students were assigned to groups which meant they shared all the same classes. This helped create cohesion and a wonderful sense of community that we don’t see as much in today’s teaching environment.

They had, among other things, decided that they needed representation and so, proceeded to elect a very competent president and vice-president. They then took the initiative to publish a class newsletter called “D’un bureau à l’autre” which I printed for them on a good old copy machine. I think that only baby boomers remember this machine which always left your fingers blue with ink and smelling of alcohol!

This part of the story is particularly important because what was printed in one of these newsletters with that machine came back to haunt me after all these years.

Recently, one of my students decided to plan a 50th anniversary reunion in September 2018. He was intelligent, resourceful and hyperactive fifty years ago; he hasn’t lost anything with age. Together with a few of his friends, he managed to retrace all their classmates: thirty, young, 65 year-olds!


But there is more. He had kept a copy of ALL their class newsletters, including the very last issue published after a long weekend spent at a camp in Mont-Rolland, an outing which these very resourceful students had organized for themselves and by themselves. At the time, they needed an adult presence, and so, as their home room teacher, I accompanied them. I admit that I don’t really remember much about it, but I do remember that I was more a willing participant than a chaperone. You can imagine the pleasure I had when I re-read that newsletter and rediscovered all that we had done together! But I had forgotten that I had contributed a text, an op-ed of sorts, to that issue, and it’s what I wrote 50 years ago which surprised me the most.

At age 22, I was an inexperienced teacher but I was already feeling a discomfort with teaching as I saw it then practiced. This is what I wrote:


Trying to describe and report on the experience that some of you have been fortunate enough to live would reduce to its simplest expression a complex set of facts, relationships, and friendships. Such a simplification could never account for the richness of this extraordinary weekend. So I prefer to let each one enjoy his or her personal experience. What I can only try to do here is put on paper some of the thoughts which it inspired.

For me, the most unforgettable result of this weekend is the collapse of two images reflecting a very specific type of relationship, that of “the pupil” and that of the “teacher”.

D'un bureau à l'autre
D’un bureau à l’autre

The free, cheerful yet serious relationship that developed during this long weekend contrasts strangely with the distance that characterized our school year. One may ask “Why the change?” Why had the questions that you asked about life, its meaning, and its purpose, not been discussed before? Why did your organizational skills and your varied interests not manifest themselves in the classroom as they were manifest this weekend?
(ED. Today I would nuance this by saying “manifest themselves as much”)

Will you tell me that in class “it’s different”, that it’s about “school subjects”, that there are exams, and that you have to “pass your year”? On this point, I couldn’t contradict you but, on the other hand, I have to ask whether “school subjects” and exams have meaning in and of themselves? What is a “school subject”? Should not all science and philosophy that we study be, above all things, the science and philosophy of life without which they are just sets of meaningless concepts?

I have bitterly felt that we all put our lives on hold while we are in school not because learning, knowing and understanding are of no interest to us but, to the contrary, because this interest, this curiosity is starved by what awaits us at the end of the semester or the year: the exam that must be passed.

The teacher then becomes the purveyor of what is required to pass the exam and not the one who, through his experience and knowledge, satisfies your desire to know and understand the world in which you live. All that remains is the “stereotyped” teacher standing before a mass of students no less anonymous, without singular personalities, whose only purpose is to pass the exams. This may seem exaggerated to one who has not lived what has been for me a genuine relationship between equal and autonomous individuals. But if that person should take the time to think about it, he will certainly be able to see, as I do, that all else is, by force of circumstance, fake and artificial.

-Christiane Dufour at age 22

So, I leave you with this question: is our teaching still driven by exams or have things fundamentally changed since then?

P.S. In contradiction to my statements above, their Latin teacher (yes, in 1968 they were taught Latin) was an exception to this rather dark vision. He did not so much teach them Latin, as discuss with them, through the great classics, important issues of our humanity. They remember it and him still.

Christiane Dufour at age 72

Beyond the Textbook: Righting the Math Course


CC0 http://pixabay.com/en/sunset-boat-sea-ship-675847/


The lecture, textbook, worksheet, pop-quiz, test and exam cycle are the traditional delivery tools used in most schools to teach mathematics. It’s the way you and I were probably taught math. Teachers, at the helm of this tightly run ship, lead their crew through the abstract terrain of formulas, equations, rules and processes in a very linear flow, with a strict time frame decided by the publishing company and the curriculum. We’re told that it has ‘worked’ for years. But what does this method do for the joy of sailing, for the exploring of unchartered territory, for discovering new lands?

Teachers report a lack of engagement in the wonder of problem solving on the part of many of their students. This valuable application skill of math has caused a parting of the seas of sorts, whereby those few students that “get it”  sail off into the abstract, while the majority who need more interactive measures are thrown to the sharks!

To encourage students to be more patient and resilient problem solvers, there has to be a better trajectory for mathematics instruction, with varied and exciting techniques and strategies that are more intuitive and applicable to the real world. Much research has been done over the years to get students to love and succeed in math, but our industrial model for mathematical instruction runs deep and teachers are wary of what they see as flavour of the month strategies that so often disappoint.

Provincial exams don’t help in righting the course, often contributing to the “drill and kill” mentality which in turn shackles educators to a rigid curriculum that revolves around textbooks, workbooks, practice sheets written by publishing houses intent on providing teachers with a direct line to mathematics instruction, taking the soul and wonder out of its’ sails.

Can we right this ship?


Lost at sea: Student anxiety

This sense of being lost at sea is discussed by Matthew A. Brenner in his essay The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rests (and what to do about them). Math instruction suffers from “the long-term, chronic frustration and shame inflicted on countless millions of students for years on end in the name of math education.” In elementary school, students start to experience a sense of being lost, overwhelmed, confused and flounder in the tidal wave of math when taught in a rote manner. Math anxiety even has its own Wikipedia entry! Brenner believes understanding must be front and centre for “where there is not understanding there can only be the most shallow learning: mindlessly memorizing facts and procedures… all that remains are bits of unconnected specific information: the multiplication table, a formula for variance, another for standard deviation, etc.”

The following table illustrates how educators might begin to right this ship.

Math Curriculum



A focus on understanding

Understanding is paramount to the development of math competency. For example, learning fractions without knowing that a fraction is a piece of one whole thing is a waste of time, and confusing. What is memorized is not learned. How big can the pieces of your birthday cake be if you have eight guests? Hmmmm. Deep learning requires a lot of varied input and cognitive engagement from baby steps in recognition until the concept is learned. Far too often math textbooks present abstract and disconnected topics in a constricted time frame with examples that don’t inspire our students to want to learn more. Teachers worried about falling behind, skip crucial steps to understanding due to perceived time constraints.

Bewildered students end up fearing what lies ahead as they struggle to memorize disconnected bits. Heads down, they see the mop swabbing the deck, bits of rope and sail, and do not notice the sea, sunsets and seaspray on their skin.

If understanding and connecting topics is what we truly seek for our learners, then instruction must involve a variety of practical resources, hands-on experiences, meaningful discussion about math that cause students to engage and reflect on concepts, to use understanding to build new understanding. Equipped with basic understanding of math concepts, and ongoing collaboration opportunities with peers and of course fun, problem-solving strategies will evolve naturally…

…information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as its material is comprehended. And understanding, comprehension, means that the various parts of the information acquired are grasped in their relation to one another—a result that is attained only when acquisition is accompanied by constant reflection upon the meaning of what is studied.  – John Dewey (1933)

We must stop teaching math the way we learned math. There is enough data that shows that how we learned math did not work for the majority of our students. If cumulative understanding is our ultimate goal, our curriculum needs a gutting. Concepts have to be understood first, no matter how long that takes, nor how many different ways to that goal are needed! Thus acquired learning can be built upon, with the big picture always guiding our course!

For such deep understanding to happen, using worked examples and their solutions (clearly laid out examples that are relevant and applicable in a context that the students can relate to, like birthday cake and sunsets) when introducing new material helps. This will lower the cognitive load on the student and provide a foundation of procedures for solving situational problems for the future. Take the following example from a grade 9 textbook;

In a bicycle race, Lionel gives Robert a 500 m advantage. Also, Lionel agrees to start 15 min after Robert. If Lionel bikes at 17 km/h and Robert at 14 km/h, how long will it take Lionel after he starts biking to overtake Robert? (Brown, Dolciani, Sorgenfrey, & Kane, 2000, p.53, problem 20).

Why give a lead in a race? Where’s the finish line? What about hills? Adrenaline in the bikers? Traffic lights? Truly void of reality, context, logic… we ask our students to make sense out of nonsense.

Encouraging students to use past understanding to build new understanding is essential in all assignments. Meaning is what is remembered, not specific detail: “New concepts and techniques should be well-grounded in concrete contexts, until they are well understood and practiced, at which point it is appropriate to discuss and apply them in more abstract and decontextualized ways.” (Brenner, 79) Thus problems like the one above can be exciting as an application of our understanding, like crossword puzzles or sudoku… exercise for the brain. Unengaged students, students who lack basic understanding of mathematical concepts will get no satisfaction, feel stupid or unhappy and jump ship… missing out on a wonderful journey from which they will not easily recover.

Cognitive and metacognitive thinking is inherent in all mathematical activity. Brenner explains it best as, “recalling information and ideas that may be helpful in solving a problem is a cognitive activity, while monitoring the progress and managing the process of solving a problem are metacognitive activity” (Brenner, 60). Students need to develop their deep processing skills in math, which can only be done by doing it. Keep the math language simple and consistent. Avoid using elaborate terms, sentence structures and complex language.

Murky math seas can be calmed if teachers’ ultimate aim is understanding, with a keen eye on the big picture. The more we understand, the more sense the world makes. So all aboard, let’s leave our old ports for seas of deep blue understanding! And cake and sunsets.


Brenner, M. (2011, July 20). The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure or Math Education Rests (and what to do about them). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://k12math.org/4pillars.shtml

Dolciani, M. (1986). Algebra and trigonometry: Structure and method (Vol. II). Boston, Massachussets: Houston Mufflin.

POP goes the Portfolio: Digital portfolio in the POP Classroom

Photo by Eliot Phillips – CC Attribution License CC BY 2.0

One of the main goals of schooling is to prepare students for a fulfilling life in the workplace, an often difficult task when you are functioning in a traditional course-based high-school model. Enter The Personal Orientation Project (POP). POP is a Career Development course aimed at Secondary Cycle Two (Grade 9) students. Its purpose is to guide students in the process of discovering different career paths, providing them with tools to make appropriate career choices. More so than many high school courses, POP offers an venue for real self-directed learning. The teacher’s role is to support the students in their career explorations, and to offer them opportunities to think outside the box by examining career possibilities that they might not have considered on their own.

The POP course is not a typical high school course. Students undertake career development explorations with greater autonomy than in many of their other courses. In the process of learning about different career paths and their own aptitudes and interests, students collect a rich bank of experiences and knowledge, while the teacher acts as a guide and sounding board.

The POP learning and evaluation process is known as KPOP (Know Yourself, Plan, On-Task and Ponder). KPOP mirrors the phases of self-regulated learning: Planning, Doing and Reflecting, with self-knowledge added to the mix. Each phase is scaffolded with reflection questions that help the student develop their profile and execute a career exploration.

The use of portfolio in POP can enrich career explorations for the student, and make teacher’s role easier. Maintaining a portfolio allows the student to not only keep a record of his/her explorations and reflections, it also facilitates sharing those experiences with the teacher and peers

Technology plays an important role in POP. The configuration of the POP classroom is effectively a computer lab environment in which students can conduct web research on various careers, experience simulations of different work environments (e.g., aviation), or learn to use the software employed in different professions.

Pop epearl logo

POP-ePearl is a digital portfolio tool designed specifically for POP. It is a component of the ePearl digital portfolio tool developed by Concordia University’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) in partnership with LEARN, MELS and others. POP-ePearl leverages the technology angle of the POP course.

There are several key advantages that POP-ePearl offers:

  • Convenience: Students can typically use ePearl anywhere they can access their school board portal, and since they are working in a POP classroom, they can record their experiences and reflections as they work through their career explorations.
  • Immediacy: Teacher and peer feedback on student work can be shared with students easily and quickly.
  • Iteration: The student can easily build on their experiences as they pursue other explorations, and refer to earlier work.

Craig Bullett is the RÉCIT animator for the Eastern Shores School Board (ESSB). For Craig, POP-ePearl offers distinct advantages for POP teachers and their students.

“There are resources built-in,” according to Craig, “You don’t have to spend time looking for stuff or creating it. There are plenty of resources available for teachers to feel comfortable managing the course.”

POP-ePearl supports POP through close integration with the learning and evaluation process. Students are presented with help prompts, cues and suggested reflection questions as they work through the phases of KPOP. They can record their reflections and experiences in different ways: writing directly in ePearl, recording their voice, attaching files created elsewhere or even linking to an external site like a blog or a photo stream. Students’ learning traces are always available to their teacher, but can be shared by each student with individuals or the whole class. Using a parent mode, students can also get feedback from their parents.

New approaches are not always an easy sell, and teachers are sometimes reticent to take on a new way of working, so Craig took a unique approach.

“I offered to launch it for teachers to their students. One teacher took me up on it and it worked well. The teacher was able to be a ‘fly on the wall’ and learn with their students as I introduced it.”

“Three other teachers have since approached me to do the same.”

Eastern Shores has had to be resourceful in its use of POP materials. Instead of purchasing a full set of POP experiential toolkits for each of their schools, a limited supply of kits are rotated through the schools on a schedule. Not only is it an effective way to manage limited resources, but time constraints it imposes in the classroom can actually help the students manage their time.

In this kind of setting, POP-ePearl can play a role by saving students and teachers time. Since the POP classroom is set up with technology in mind, students have immediate access to it.

Travis Hall, Career Development Consultant at English Montreal School Board, saw the usefulness of POP-ePearl immediately.

“POP ePEARL makes sense. That was my first thought when I tried it,” says Travis.

Matthew Maxham teaches the Personal Orientation Project (POP) at LaurenHill Academy in Ville St-Laurent. His is a large school and he has many students. For Matthew POP-ePearl has an obvious plus: “Now I won’t need to rent a van to take student work home to mark.”

Are you interested in learning more about POP-ePearl and getting a look at the tool? Join me at the next LEARN Web Event on April 9th.

Geolocalize it: The global context of everything

The idea for this blog post came to me after I presented a short webinar on the mapping and drawing application Cartograf last week (Archive available here).   Previously I had published a post about Cartograf’s incredible power for subjects like History and Geography.  (Cartograf info and tutorials here!)  But interestingly my web event attracted educators from a variety of different subject areas.  I thought, why such broad interest in a mapping application?  What relevance did it have for them?  I wanted to find out more, so I gathered together a few friends from different domains to brainstorm some potential uses for Cartograf (and for geographic skills in general) in subjects other than secondary Geography and History.  

Over a few days I interviewed or corresponded with:

  • Annie-Claude Valois, Consultant for F.L.S (French) from RSB
  • Sylwia Bielec, Consultant for the Arts from LEARN
  • Anne-Marie Desilva, Consultant for ERC (Ethic and Religious Education) from EMSB
  • Susan Van Gelder , Consultant for ELA (English) at LEARN
  • Craig Bullet, RECIT and SS (Social Sciences) consultant for the ESSB

Below are not exact quotes from our exchanges, but rather short paraphrases of some of the suggestions they made.


Location, location, location


Paul:   Is location important for your subject area?  Why should students in your subject know where things are taking place, where things are made, created, written, imagined?   In Cartograf you can mark precise points on the globe, and within that “marker” you can provide or they can interpret information in the form of texts, images, even videos.  But why should students care about the where?

Annie-Claude (FLS):   In French it is very important for students to learn about Francophone culture, from here but also from around the world.  Students often read stories that take place elsewhere, or do a formal report on a topic external to Canada, like war, or poverty. Cartograf and the use of Google Satellite view could help students actually see where things happened or where they are happening now.

Craig (SS):  In elementary cycle 1 students learn to construct and represent their space, by mapping simple things like their neighbourhood, key buildings, etc.   Cartograf markers could be used to identify these places even at young ages.  Images in the markers could help teachers convey information.   In their History courses students could tag specific locations too.  For the explorers to New France students could mark where they came from and also where they landed and later settled.

Sylwia (Arts):  If you believe art history is important and are a teacher that likes to provide historical contexts for art, then location is important.  Consider a group like the Impressionists and how learning about where and when they painted will provide a context for what and how they painted.   Location can also be seen an impetus to create.  For example, geographically-based conflicts or events have often inspired artists to create works based on their reaction or interpretation of the situation.  Showing students the location of the conflicts, with specific examples using the marker tools in Cartograf, could inspire them to respond to those conflicts or events themselves. They could also mirror the process and seek out local issues that are important to them and use those as an impetus for creation.

Anne-Marie (ERC):  Location is essential to understanding religions and religious culture.  In the elementary program students need to know how to locate religions in their society and also around the world.  For example they need to understand which countries are predominantly Muslim, Christian, and so on.  They also need to understand information about those countries, like whether state and religion are separate entities.  Students learn also about the founders of religions, so marker points in Cartograf could include information about those individuals, where they were born, how they lived, as well as where and how they founded a religion.  Similarly, students learn about famous religious places.  Cathedrals, mosques, temples of course,  but also sacred regions like Jerusalem.  An explanation of why a site is important to a particular religion could be added to a marker, an image or even a Streetview panorama could provide more information about that site today.

Susan (ELA):  One might forget that in English we often read books from authors outside of Canada.  When reading literature from other countries, students could locate specific scenes on a map, and include images and texts to help them flesh out an understanding of the area.  Similarly, when learning about the authors themselves, students could mark locations for them too.  Have the authors travelled? Has this influenced their writing?  Learn about where they live and how this might relate to their stories.  As a class, using the share codes in Cartograf, we could even build up a common map of the authors we’ve read.


Leaving a trace

New York Simple Map

Paul:   Could tracing routes or delineating territory be useful?  In Cartograf you can draw simple maps, lines and shapes that delineate borders, land use, relationships between territories?  Could these type of cartographic skills come into play in a learning scenario in your subject area?

Annie-Claude (FLS):  Some stories are complex geographically, like one about a Quebecois child, whose parents are of Haitian descent, whereas his grandparents were African slaves.  Using Cartograf we could mark the origins of the family and trace their voyage, their immigrant experience, from one place to another.

Sylwia (Arts):  To understand art sometimes we need to understand schools of art, as they existed in a geographic area.  Think about the Bauhaus movement and the particular German cities in which it developed, the regions in which it took place.   Or think of Rome and the religious art that developed around and along lines marked by the spread of Catholicism.   Students could learn about these types of art and influence through simple maps, or they could trace equivalent patterns of influence today on maps of their own?   These sort of activities could help springboard them towards finding their own “religion equivalent” if you will, their own artistic movement to follow.

image005Anne-Marie (ERC):   At the secondary level students could enhance their understanding of religions by plotting the routes of famous pilgrimages!  Cartograf’s ability to include information in shapes means the route could be explained at each stage.   Another common activity asks students to trace religions down through time, to show how they from one place to another.  Again, information added to each line and shape could note why people moved, how and why beliefs spread and transformed.  Think of the silk roads, think of historical contexts like the Crusades or the spread and retreats of Islam.   And even for the Ethics competencies I think simple maps could be used, to help delineate differences between one country to the next, as concerns children’s rights for example, or perhaps the legality of homosexuals.   Even ethical issues stemming from certain events, like the movement and acceptance of refugees, could also be better explored by tracing maps of their routes and of their origins.

Susan (ELA):  Often the storyline of a book takes us to a variety of places.  Using Cartograf students could trace the routes that different characters take.  Call it a Cartograf lit trip!  Think about books like Underground to Canada, Walk Two Moons, or the Grapes of Wrath.  Sometimes the routes taken are almost as important as the development of character or plot.  Keep in mind too that knowing how to read maps, images, any sort of media or graphic representation, all that could be considered part of ELA too.  “Texts” are much more than just words.


Does an image paint a thousand words?

Sketch on street view

Paul:    Cartograf also contains powerful ways to use and analyze images.   Photographs can be localized and explained inside a marker point (i.e.  “attached” and thus geolocalized to a specific location, a city, a street corner, a cliff side, a mountain top, anywhere on the globe.)  You can also access Google Street panoramas, and insert actual street-level imagery and point of views for consideration, maybe for comparison.  And what is more, you can even sketch on top of images, labeling, tracing shapes, adjusting transparency, using advance drawing tools right in the application.  Could you use images in any of these ways?  What type of learning activities could students do using Cartograf’s image analysis tools?

Annie-Claude (FLS):    We often use images during activities where we pose questions to students.  Sometimes students also use images in order to make predictions.   Images inside localized points on maps could inspire other questions about location and the environment as well.

Sylwia (Arts):  Google Streetview in Cartograf could be used to find and display works of art that are relatively permanent, like a graffiti by someone like Banksy for example!   Or a series of graffiti examples could demonstrate a general street art movement.   Murals on buildings in certain cities, in certain countries, could also be tagged and explained, in terms of location, but also in terms of culture, or local social issues.  In Competency 3 students appreciate an image, and must talk about it in terms of things like artistic techniques.  Certainly the drawing tools could be used to help identify techniques in images they attach to points, the play of light and shadow, pointillism, etc.  As an actual creation tool I am not sure though.  When it comes to using technology, multimedia art teachers are more likely to introduce their students to more specialized drawing or photo editing software, like Photoshop.

Anne-Marie (ERC):  Religious places could be compared by using Cartograf’s image editor, to combine and compare images, like now-and-then image pairs, or uploaded photographs juxtaposed or overlapped with streetview images.  Religious art could also be labelled and thus explored, in terms of location yes, but also as concerns their meaning or significance.  For example, for Michelangelo’s David, you could include it in a point where it was created, then place it again where it stands now, and then make an analysis of the statue using text and drawing tools as well.   Of course there is also religious architecture, its identifying features and making an analysis of individual differences as it appears in different locations.  And finally, at specific sites, or as part of specific cultures, students often identify and analyze religious expressions, like an object, or the way someone prays to express their faith.  Using a tool that also helps localize the religious expression can only help to explain them, to show differences and to show contexts.  For example, an object in a Montreal mosque might be compared to one in a Saudi mosque using two images in marker points at their respective locations.


But why bother learning geographically?  What is the “place value”!?

Paul:  Okay, I always understood that our world is… “a complex battleground of physical and human interactions. [And that]  Local is no longer local, but a collision point for the interaction of many ‘locals’ drawn from a global stage.”  (Tony Cassidy)   But after these few conversations and brainstorming sessions (thanks folks!) I also discovered that what we learn, in pretty much every subject area we learn, is only about our little corner of the world insomuch as it relates  to everyone else’s.  Everything has relative place value.

image009That being said, the question I still asked myself at the end the day was why?   Or for me specifically, why should my son, who is about to graduate high school, care about where things are?   I found some of my answers in how these short reflections show that geography, and the maps we live by, help us understand who we are and what we know, in pretty much every way we learn.   But then I also stumbled on an excellent little video I thought I’d share to end this post, by (who else other than) National Geographic, called “Why is Geo-literacy Important?”    Geo-literacy, it said, is basically about sufficiently informing the decisions we make (where sufficiently now also implies globally) so that we can better take action, and so our decisions are healthy, balanced and real in the global context in which we live.   Pardon me?  What?  Where was all that said again?  Well, in this case, right about here!


Information on Cartograf:

CartoGraf is an interactive web-based mapping application to enhance learning in geography and history classes in schools and colleges. It is free and Open Source and produced by following partners:

Conceived and developed by RECITUS,  in partnership with LEARN and Parks Canada
En français @ http://www.recitus.qc.ca/ et http://cartograf.recitus.qc.ca
In English @  http://learnquebec.ca  and http://cartograf.learnquebec.ca
More information here @ our Cartograf info page >> 

Teacher Book Picks: Favourites from the Field

by Chapendra shared under CC
Photo by Chapendra Reading [Day 12] under a CC license

With the winter holidays quickly upon us, many educators across the province will soon be on a two week break from the classroom. Susan and I thought that this might be an opportune time to talk about books, in particular, books that highlight innovative classroom practice, suggest novel strategies to engage students, and provide insight into the mind of the learner. Yes, it’s time to get mentally re-energized people! So, we asked a few of our esteemed colleagues for their latest and greatest in terms professional development reads. Here’s what they had to say:

Audrey McLaren, online math teacher from Dorval highly recommends a recently published book, Flipping 2.0 edited by Jason Bretzmann.

Flipping 2.0 is a book made for teachers by teachers. It’s full of practical ideas for anyone interested in flipping their classroom. Teachers from many different subject areas and levels each contributed a chapter full of their experiences and insights in their own flipping journey. In this book you can find tips not only about teaching math, social sciences, English, and science using the flip, but also flipped professional development, as well as suggestions for what technology tools to use.

It bears mentioning that Audrey is no slouch when it comes to flipping her classroom and did in fact contribute one of the chapters in this book. (Way to go, Audrey!) So, if the ideas in this collection inspire her – they will surely inspire you too.

Peggy Drolet, online math teacher living in Quebec City, gives two thumbs to a book that has seriously impacted on her classroom practice, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.

As Burgess suggests on the front cover, “Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator”. What I love about this book is that the author is passionate about both teaching and his subject, history. He describes what that looks like and he shares it with his students: “When we model enthusiasm it rubs off on everyone around us.” In Part 1 of his book, each chapter is dedicated to explaining the acronym PIRATE: Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask & Analyze, Transformation, Enthusiasm. Part 2 is full of inspiring examples of how to “Craft Engaging Lessons”. The last section is dedicated to advice on “How to Set Sail”.

When I reflect on my teaching practices, I constantly look for ideas on how to engage students in their learning. Burgess continually refers to teaching as “an adventure full of challenges and excitement”. You can follow him on Twitter @burgessdave. The hashtag #tlap is what drew me to his inspirational book in the first place. By following this hashtag, you too can engage in rich conversations with teachers all over the continent who implement his strategies.  Burgess hopes you will (like any good pirate!) “…explore unchartered territories and brave new adventures.”

 Aaargh – sounds like a great journey to embark upon!!

On the Platform, Reading
Photo by Mo Riza On the Platform, Reading under a  CC license

Teacher Neil MacIntosh, the Science Guy at Pontiac High, gave us his (very!) honest review and recommendation of Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie.

So, I was all set NOT to like this slender book, which at first blush, seemed to be a flavour of the month. I started reading without holding any great hopes as to its impact on my teaching or my thoughts on teaching. But…by about Chapter 3, I realized that I was completely into the text and ideas put forth by Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne.

This is a follow-up to Visible Learning: a Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.  The data for the meta-analyses have been left safely untouched in the last 100 pages of the text – no worries, gentle reader. What I found interesting and satisfying, and why I didn’t roll my eyes, was Hattie’s calm acknowledgement of the general ideas of teaching; the messiness, and the unrecognized efforts so many teachers put into their profession.  Some approaches that teachers have taken have worked and have helped student learning, others less so (learning styles anyone?).

Hattie’s analysis of the data suggests that almost everything a teacher does has a positive effect. However, teachers need to continually focus on best practices to improve student achievement, as well as to be aware of their own impact on their students. The biggest chunk of the book is about lesson preparation and delivery – what works and what doesn’t for both teacher and students. Changes need to be based on evidence…to be measurable. Hattie sees the teacher in the classroom as the primary agent of change, with the support of school leadership. “Teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we have some control.” Thus, the title is apt: Visible Learning for Teachers, to help them in their practice.

Photo by J Brew Reading with Kindle in my Study under a  CC license

But wait, we also have books to share.

From Susan:

I love the book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager.  If you want to get a taste of what you will find, watch their presentation from the K12 Online Conference. The book is not just about making things but is also about the philosophy of education behind it – of people learning by doing. I’ve written in the past about the maker movement. Stager and Martinez lay out why it is imperative that students be engaged in creating and demonstrate how any teacher can move towards empowering their students to construct, to tinker, and to become problem-solvers in a student-centred environment.

Another book I continue to enjoy leafing through is only available from the iBook store in electronic version. It is currently off the virtual shelves but will be back soon, author, Tim Holt assured me. It is 180 Questions written by Tim with the help of other visionary educators. There are 180 ideas to ponder about teaching and learning accompanied by beautiful photos, live links to web sites and blog posts as well as QR codes embedded which lead you off to articles. This would be a great book to explore on your own or share one page at a time (180 school days) with colleagues. It would generate wonderful discussions as well as help practitioners be reflective about their practice.

From Kristine:

I just finished, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. This is a great book for anybody interested in how digital media is shaping the lives of our youth. What I like most about this book is that it is highly research driven but doesn’t feel that way because of how the research or “story” is delivered…through the comparative lens of three very different digital generations, as represented by Howard, Katie and Molly (Katie’s younger sister). The book is full of great interviews and anecdotes, as well as one very interesting study comparing youthful artistic productions pre and post app-suffusion.  I also appreciate that the authors don’t seem to be pushing any particular agenda and suggest that the technological world of today can either hinder and make teens “app-dependent” or help and “app-enable” them.

A book that is not all that new (2009) but that recently caught my attention is, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. I have to admit that this is one that I’m saving for the holidays as I have yet to read beyond the introduction. As the parent of three boys, what interests me is that Sax not only delves into 20 years of clinical research to explain why boys today are less resilient and less ambitious than they were before, but he also provides strategies for educators and parents on how to re-engage them.

One final recommendation (and gift!) from Susan:

A book that is great to consult is Wes Fryer’s, Mapping Media to the Common Core. Available as an e-book it is full of ideas of ways students can be creating artifacts in any subject area to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the content. I have a couple of links to copies to give away. I would be happy to mail the cards with the information to the  first two non-LEARN educators who leave comments with great professional book suggestions. It would be wonderful to add to the list and share our favourite reads that stimulate us to think about our students and our craft.

With that…we wish you all happy holidays and happy reading!

Kristine Thibeault & Susan van Gelder

A Critical Conversation About Literacy Part III: A Place to Start in Today’s Classroom

by Melanie Stonebanks

You don’t have to have all the answers. You only need to know the questions to ask.

"It's a Book" by Lane Smith - You Tube trailer

As has been discussed in the previous two postings on this topic, critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

In order to properly prepare our students to be literate in this ever changing technological and multimodal world, we teachers need to reflect upon and challenge our own beliefs and understanding of literacy.  Harwood (2008) advocates that “educators need to challenge children and provide balanced literacy opportunities that value the social-cultural construction of knowledge while reflecting the diversity of children’s lives.” She strongly supports the notion that classroom “opportunities to collaborate, discuss, critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct a multitude of meaningful and radical texts (Kohl, 1995) are equally important in literacy development as learning to identify phonemes of sound.”

For the sake of brevity, the definition of “radical texts” has been borrowed from Leland, Harste, Ociepka, Lewison, and Vasquez’s (1999) suggestions for choosing critical texts. Radical texts chosen for elementary aged children should meet the following criteria:

  • Texts don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference;
  • Texts enrich children’s understanding of history and life by giving voice to those who have been traditionally silenced or marginalized;
  • Texts show how people can begin to take action on important social issues;
  • Texts should explore dominant systems of meaning that operate in our society to position people and groups of people;
  • Texts should not provide “happily ever after” endings for complex social problems.

Children can be encouraged to think critically and answer critical questions that will enable them to examine their own insights as well as those presented in texts, which is at the heart of critical literacy programming. Teachers need to encourage children to challenge the status quo of what is represented within texts, asking questions such as:

  • Whose voice is heard and whose voice is left out?”
  • Who is the intended reader? (For example asking, is the text intended for specific groups of people and if so how is that group portrayed?)
  • What was the world like when the text was created?
  • What does the author want you to feel or think?
  • What does the author expect you to know or value?
  • What does the text say about boys (about girls)?
  •  Is it important that the main character is beautiful (powerful/wealthy)? (Harwood, 2008)


Luke, O’Brien, and Comber (2001) suggest the following key questions:

  • What is the topic? How is it being presented? What themes and discourses are being expressed?
  • Who is writing to whom? Whose positions are being expressed? Whose voices and positions are not being expressed?
  • What is the text trying to do to you?
  • What other ways are there of writing about the topic?
  • What wasn’t said about the topic? Why?

This list is not exhaustive, and the critical questions that arise will often depend on the children and the issue involve. There is no single ‘recipe’ of how to incorporate critical literacy within an elementary school curriculum so teachers need to work against the “commodification” (Luke & Freebody, 1999) of critical literacy, as they begin to recognize the important benefits of fostering children’s critical viewing of texts. Harwood (2008) does well to remind us that children’s interests and questions should also be incorporated into the literacy curriculum and form an important addition to the critical questions that arise. By honouring children’s own natural curiosity and using their inquisitiveness as a starting point, greater depth and engagement with texts is possible.

A list of picture books to support critical literacy can be found here http://quest-critical-literacy.wikispaces.com/Picture+Books+to+Support+Critical+Literacy

A question that my husband and I always put to our pre-service education students when discussing the concept of curriculum design is the “So what?” or “Why?” question.  We push these soon to be teachers to consider deeply the impact that their choices of what they will bring into their future classrooms will have on the children under their care.  This is probably one of the most challenging exercises in lesson planning.  Analyzing the overt and covert effect of one’s chosen methodology and material on a widely diverse group of learners is incredibly time consuming and at times frustrating if all aspects are considered thoroughly.

Now, not one to ask of others something I would not do myself, I end this posting with the questions “Why teach critical literacy?  What difference will it really make in the lives of elementary students and teachers?”  In all honesty, I believe the difference of enacting a program of critical literacy into one’s English Language Arts curriculum as compared to my own literacy learning as a student, student teacher and teacher is profound.  As opposed to a basal textbook, scripted or worksheet driven reading program, a true emancipatory literacy curriculum which, in the words of Lankshear and Lawler (1987) is a literacy curriculum that enables students to become properly literate, a literacy of hope and possibility, of affirmation and acceptance; a literacy that challenges us to look beyond our limited cultural assumptions and worldviews; a literacy that not only legitimates students’ voices but allows them to see that they are part of the continuing human dialogue, and that their lives can make a difference is what needs to be put in place.  Without a doubt, it will take a great many more hours to develop and there will be numerous mishaps along the way but the empowerment and sense of self that will be fostered in that community of learners is well worth it.

The following sites are good places to continue reading, thinking and teaching about critical literacy in your classroom.  Enjoy!









References for further reading can be found here:

Harwood, D.  Deconstructing and Reconstructing Cinderella: Theoretical Defense of Critical Literacy for Young Children. Language and Literacy, volume 10, issue 2, Fall 2008. Retrieved from http://www.langandlit.ualberta.ca/Fall2008/Harwood.htm

Kohl, H. (1995). Should we burn Babar? Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: The New Press.

Lankshear, C. & Lawler, M. (1987). Literacy, schooling, and revolution. New York: Falmer.

Lelande, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vazquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 3-8.

Luke, A., O’Brien, J., & Comber, B. (2001). Making community texts objects of study.

In H. Fehring & P. Green (Eds.), Critical literacy: A collection of articles from the

Australian Educators’ Association. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601